The God of Small Things

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Arundhati Roy makes an impressive debut in her first novel, The God of Small Things, which traces the decline of a South Indian family. In the late 1990’s a novel with an Indian setting hardly seems foreign to Western readers after the wide reception of books by Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Shashi Tharoor, and numerous other Indian novelists. While Roy may not have surpassed her fellow writers, she has invented a narrative that is strikingly original in its indirectness, distinctive in its handling of colorful and exotic details, and rich with sketchily drawn but memorable characters. Even though Roy’s determined inventiveness falters at times, the accomplishments outshine the imperfections.

The novel, which dwells on the cruelty of separation, opens with a reunion of the twins, Rahel and Estha, the youngest members of a ruined South Indian family. The Ipes, who are anglicized, Syrian Christians, once held a prominent position in the village of Ayemenem, located in the tropical splendor of India’s southernmost state, Kerala. Yet when Rahel and Estha, now in their thirties, meet in the family home for the first time since childhood, they find the once-grand house neglected and grimy, its formerly well-tended grounds a tangle of growth—“Filth had laid siege to the Ayemenem House like a medieval army advancing on an enemy castle.” Rahel had, in the intervening years, married, moved to the United States, divorced her husband, and returned to India. When she hears that her brother Estha has come back to the ancestral home, she rushes to meet him. The psychological states of the brooding brother and unpredictable sister resemble the desolate house where they meet after their long separation.

Yet their reunion, taking place in the present, does not provide the plot with its impetus. Rather, the past defines and formulates the immediate. Those events from that murky past are gradually made known through a series of indirect revelations that the author tortures into telling. The family’s decline, already on its way, moved into full speed during the Christmas season of 1969, when the young twins’ cousin, Sophie Mol, and her British mother, their uncle Chacko’s former wife, arrived from England for a holiday. With the narrative moving backward, then forward, then reversing itself and taking an unexpected turn, then falling into repetition, the reader learns of Sophie Mol’s drowning, the twins’ possible responsibility for their cousin’s death, their mother’s disgrace and banishment, the social structure that leads to the mistreatment of the untouchable class, the forced parting of the twins, the dwindling family fortune, and the disintegrating relationships. Finally, each character suffers separation from family, from love, from security, and from the larger world. This painful tearing apart comes about by chance events and by small things over which they appear to have no control: “It’s true. Things can change in a day,” the narrator observes.

Because most of the Indian novels that have been published in the West are set in northern India, that area has become somewhat familiar. So The God of Small Things is distinctive not only in its method of narration but in its South Indian setting as well. Roy has managed to integrate into the plot the rare atmosphere of Kerala, beginning with the opening paragraphs:

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.

Such intense description enlivens the text throughout and creates a heady atmosphere abundant in color and smells, sounds and sights. Yet Roy avoids invoking the exotic merely for its own sake but skillfully makes this rare place at least partially responsible for its inhabitants’ behavior and misfortunes.

Allusions to other literary works and popular culture, mostly of Western origin, fill the text. References extend from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) to Elvis Presley to Batman comics to popular American television shows. All of this suggests how an anglicized family like the Ipes have one foot in the West, the other in traditional Indian culture. In fact, this conflict may partially account for their downfall. Certainly their attitudes toward and treatment of the untouchable class, supposedly outlawed in modern India, stems from centuries of prejudice, and no Western ways will change such...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Map of India showing the location of the city of Cochin in southern India Published by Gale Cengage

Because of the efforts of the political and religious leader Mohandas Gandhi India became independent on August 15, 1947, at the stroke of...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Non-sequential Narrative
The God of Small Things is not written in a sequential narrative style in which...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As this story focuses on two children and their impressions of the world, Roy uses various techniques to represent the children's viewpoint...

(The entire section is 378 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The two main situations that provide the backdrop for this story are the former colonization of India by England and the caste system that...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The difficulty of living in a caste-based society, for those towards the top, and those near the bottom, is the focus of this novel. The...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1969: E. M. S. Namboodiripad’s communist government of Kerala falls for the second time, and the Indian National...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Roy has published a great deal of political writing, has worked as an activist, and has been imprisoned for her political beliefs....

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children is especially relevant to Roy's chosen subject matter, as his novel centers on a family...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The God of Small Things is Roy's first novel. A screenwriter, Roy has written for Indian cinema and has subsequently written a work of...

(The entire section is 108 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An abridged version of The God of Small Things, read by Sarita Choudhury, is available on tape from Harper Audio.

(The entire section is 20 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The Guide (1958) is R. K. Narayan’s popular tale of Raju, a former convict who is mistaken for a holy...

(The entire section is 172 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Clarke, Anna. “Hybridity and Syncretism in The God of Small Things.” In New Hybridities: Societies and Cultures in Transition, edited by Frank Heidemann and Alfonso de Toro. New York: Georg Olms, 2006. In her essay, Clarke discusses the form, language, and themes of The God of Small Things from the critical perspective of postcolonial literary theory. Part of a larger study of cultural hybridity and diversity.

D’ Cruz, Doreen. “Configuring the Dynamics of Dispossession in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 5, no. 2 (December, 2003): 56-76....

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Menon, Ritu. “The Age of Innocence,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 12, September...

(The entire section is 221 words.)